Review – A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, 27th October 2018

A Very Very Very Dark MatterA new play by Martin McDonagh? Starring Jim Broadbent? That’ll do nicely, thank you. But what’s this? Unofficial feedback from a number of sources saying the play’s an absolute stinker? Surely some mistake? That was, at least, the early reaction from some quarters. Others were saying how bold and brilliant it was. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I concluded it was going to be one of those plays that you either love with a passion or hate with even more passion. And I think that conclusion was right.

VVVDM3Meet Hans Christian Andersen, at the top of his powers; receiving fan mail from around the world, reading his latest stories to an admiring public, and getting richly rewarded in the process. So who would have thought that his stories were actually written by a pygmy Congolese woman he kept locked up in a cage? I know, it doesn’t sound likely. Don’t get me wrong, he does let her out occasionally – although the deal seems to be that if she’s let out, when she gets back inside, he has configured it so that the cage has become slightly smaller for her. Does that seem fair? But then, is it fair that he takes all the plaudits for her work? True, he does edit her stories; he tweaked The Little Black Mermaid, for example, by removing a significant word from the title, much to her disappointment. His justification? There are no black mermaids. Her retort – that there are no mermaids! – carries little weight with him. The woman – called Marjory, because he can’t be bothered to learn her real name – also appears to be tied up with some kind of Congolese resistance movement against the brutal Belgian colonisation of her homeland. Of course, the Congo Free State was founded ten years after Hans Christian Andersen died. And of course, Charles Dickens is mixed up in all of this too. Well, why not? I’m sensing allegory here. Confused? You will be.

VVVDM2It’s as though Martin McDonagh has got together the threads of three or four plays – one about Andersen, one about Dickens, one about the Congo and one about plagiarism – thrown them all up in the air at once, and then stitched them together where they landed. It can’t possibly work, can it? Strangely, by virtue of some great performances, cunning characterisation, hilarious scenes and sheer bravado, it does; but if you ask me how, I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you.

VVVDM1Jim Broadbent’s performance as Andersen certainly helps. No happy-go-lucky Danny Kaye type here. He’s a gurning, miserable, grouchy old sod; casually racist – against everyone, mind, even the Danes, and certainly the Belgians; irrepressibly vain (if he receives a letter that doesn’t praise him to the skies, he thinks the writer is selfish; if they do praise him, he thinks they’re after something), grotesquely cruel, and – bizarrely – child-hating. Despite all that, somehow he gets the audience on his side. There’s quite a lot of fourth wall breaking – only minor moments, but always when he’s appealing to us to agree with him about something – and, in some challenging way, you can’t help liking the irascible old git. Probably because it’s Jim Broadbent.

VVVDM4There are two or three fabulously funny scenes where he invites himself to stay with Charles Dickens and his family for weeks on end, outstaying his welcome from the word go. McDonagh characterises Dickens as a foul-mouthed oaf with a bad temper – Phil Daniels captures this beautifully – and provides him with a sweet-looking but almost as crude wife and kids, and their family exchanges are toe-curlingly delightful. You just don’t expect Mrs Catherine Dickens (Elizabeth Berrington on fine form) to come out with lines like “you’re shitting me?” and “I’m leaving you, and taking one of the children with me.” Dickens also has a very very very dark secret, but I’ve got to hold back on some spoilers.

VVVDM7Despite racism being a very powerful theme in this story, McDonagh’s writing and construction keep all the content just on the safe side of acceptable; for example, when the Belgian redmen (you’ll have to see the play to understand who they are) break in to Andersen’s house and give Marjory some chips, naturally they are covered in mayo. She’s not impressed. I think I’m a reasonably PC kind of guy but I surprised myself by never being offended by this play – and I had fully expected to be Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells about this – which I think is a smart trick on McDonagh’s part.

VVVDM5There’s also a funny and moving performance by Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory, on her professional debut. Her facial expressions, her comic timing, and her expressions of pathos are all absolutely spot-on; emotional without ever being maudlin. The character has a sting in her tail and Ms Ackles never holds back from giving us a really gutsy show. The supporting cast are also all excellent; big shout-out to the children on our performance who were delightfully butter-wouldn’t-melt alongside quoting their father’s filthy language; and there’s an excellent cameo scene from Northampton University recent alumna Kundai Kanyama as Marjory’s sister Ogechi – a splendid career awaits I’m sure!

VVVDM6At barely 90 minutes with no interval, this play rattles through at a fast pace and constantly shocks, surprises and upsets you whilst maintaining a mischievous sense of humour throughout. Working on my theory that I’d sooner see a brave failure than a lazy success, there’s nothing lazy about this, nor is it a failure. It’s certainly brave! A Very Very Very Strange, but Entertaining Play!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – Le Week-End, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 28th October 2013

Le Week-EndWell it was all rather a strange evening really. When we arrived at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse (still the best ever place you could possibly wish to see a film) the foyer was packed with noisy boozers. We couldn’t believe it – normally there’s a small queue of people wishing to take advantage of the innovative food and drink provision before taking it into the cinema, but this was like a party. When I eventually got to the counter to order our Argentinian Malbecs (delish as always) I asked the chap serving if the place had suddenly got extremely popular. Apparently it was a birthday party group who had seen the earlier film and had decided they didn’t want to leave! Anyway we got our drinks and fought our way into the auditorium.

Lindsay Duncan and Jim BroadbentThe announced time on the tickets is for when the film is due to start. 8.30pm. There’s always 15 minutes or so of adverts and trailers beforehand – you know the score. Anyway, 8.27, 8.28, 8.29 came round and the auditorium was in silence. No trailers, no nothing. We predicted a problem. Mrs Chrisparkle expected to finish her Malbec, reclining in her plush leather chair, and then go home. But no, at 8.32 a little voice popped in to say there were technical problems but it would be starting very shortly. And indeed, so it did – lots of adverts. By about 8.50 another usher emerged and said they would stop all the adverts now and go straight into the film.

No criticism of the cinema intended, but it was already turning into a Long Week-End. However, once the film had finished it felt like a very long Week-End indeed. Actually the film is relatively short but it felt like an eternity. Looking at the reviews, this is definitely a Marmite film; I read a five star review of it that absolutely loved all the aspects of it that we absolutely hated. It all goes to prove that reviews are simply personal reflections of the artistic experience, and we’re all different.

Jeff GoldblumThe problem with this film starts with the trailer. If ever a promotional item gave you the wrong idea about the content of the main product, this is the one. Is there an Advertising Standards Agency watchdog for film trailers? Ofmovie, perhaps? This would be an excellent topic for their scrutineers. You would think it was going to be a Rom Com for sixty-somethings; a couple going to Paris for the weekend to celebrate an anniversary and rekindle their flagging relationship. We’d seen the trailer a few weeks ago, where Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent traipse from restaurant to restaurant saying “no, too touristy”, “no, not enough people”, “no, too many people” etc, etc, and that’s precisely what we do in a foreign city. We knew instinctively that we would identify with these people, and get a feelgood throb from seeing them grow back together.

paris eiffelBut instincts can sometimes be wrong. For a Rom Com, there was precious little to laugh at, and when it ended, everyone left feeling as flat as a pancake. The cinema was full of middle-aged couples who obviously all expected to identify with the characters in the same way; and if you have the remotest amount of self-respect you couldn’t possibly. Actually, the film is about a couple who have been married for forty years and have become desperately cruel to each other, despite occasional highlights of mutual understanding. It’s not really a comedy because there’s not a lot funny in it; it’s hardly a tragedy (at least in the classical sense) because you have no sense of anyone being particularly heroic. I’m not really sure what it is. Not so much a Rom Com, more an Argu Tede.

On paper it looks like a winning combination. Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent are always brilliant in everything they do. They’re in Paris; that glorious city of dreams. A couple in a flagging relationship take a weekend away to regroup. It’s got to be a winner, no? What they don’t take into account is the fact that, for the most part, it’s quite boring – there’s an excellent climactic dinner party scene, but it’s incredibly slow to get there; it’s self-indulgent, self-pitying, feels totally inconsequential and above all, it’s thoroughly amoral. The only thing that seems to unite this couple is a desire to go to expensive restaurants and do a runner. They stay at a very posh hotel and ruin the walls. They run up bills they cannot pay. Basically this film celebrates illegality and irresponsibility, and the kind of behaviour most middle-class middle-aged people would despise in younger people.

paris sacre coeurThere were things I liked; I liked the structure of the film, in that it started with the beginning of the weekend, with them on the train to London, and ended with the end of the weekend, with them abnegating their responsibilities by dancing in a café when by rights they should be doing the washing up. There was no faffing around with unnecessary introduction. I liked Paris – it was certainly the most enjoyable thing on screen and makes a superb setting for any film. We thought Jim Broadbent gave a very good performance as the desperately sad Nick; however, Mrs C’s observation about Lindsay Duncan’s performance as Meg is that she has turned into a kind of female Bill Nighy, all throw-away lines, self-conscious posturing and “look at me” glances to camera. Jeff Goldblum was also very good as Nick’s old college friend, and I felt very sorry for him when Nick and Meg just walk out on his party without saying goodbye. But then, that’s just the kind of people they are.

paris tuileriesWhat progress is made in their relationship over the course of the weekend? All I could detect was that on the first evening Nick has a phone conversation with their son who is obviously having domestic difficulties, and Nick would like him and his family to return home whilst Meg is dead against it; by the end of the weekend, Nick too is putting him off from returning home – not in a decent way, mind; he said no and then whilst the son was remonstrating, he just pretended that the phone line had cut out. Coward. Apart from that, I didn’t get a sense of an increased understanding between the two characters; but then, so what, I really didn’t care either.

When we did finally emerge into the open air, Mrs C was amazed that it was only twenty past ten; that 93 minutes was amongst the longest we’ve endured. Our energy and enthusiasm had been completely sapped by the film and its unpleasant characters. We did briefly wonder on the way home how they will get themselves out of their unresolved pickle at the end of the film, but then came to our senses as we asked, “who cares?”